This is a true story that captivated America in the 19th century. The scene of the drama unfolded where the jeweled tones of the Pacific Ocean have flowed for countless millenia, coursing between mainland and islands in a waterway known as the Santa Barbara Channel.
Long before the sea captain and the Lone Woman met, in the earliest days of human history, this area was home only to the Chumash tribes. Thousands of these Native Americans lived in the valleys, along the beaches, or on the Islands in the area known as Santa Barbara.
Both branches of the tribe - mainland and island - led similar lives: They were peaceful, spiritual people. The gathered sustenance from the hills around them, the beaches and sea that lay before them, and from the blue and starry skies above them. They fished and swam. They ate seal, fish, mussels, and wild plants. Their shaman priests led the people in worship and celebration. They paddled their tomol boats back and forth across the Channel, and shared the riches of their life here.
For thousands of years, the Chumash had few natural enemies, very little disease or illness. They had an abundance of fresh food and water, and plentiful resources to make tools, homes, art - society.
Their physical needs were met with the rich abundance around them, giving them opportunity to develop their sophisticated society and an intricate mythology. They were co-creators, partners with nature, inextricably woven together in the web of life at the edge of the North American continent.
Occidental society had developed simultaneously - but in a different direction. They developed the desire and the means to expand their worlds - by any means necessary. As their transportation became more sophisticated, they sought new shores, new worlds to conquer. In the 16th century, European explorers began to ply the waters of Southern California. The forays into this world were intermittant at first, but increasingly more frequent and more intrusive to the indigenous people here.
The Portuguese and English were interested in this part of the world, but it was the Spanish who finally committed their resources to claiming this land - and all within it - for themselves.
In 1782, a a Spanish fort, or presidio, was established in Santa Barbara. Indoctrination and religious conversion were waged against the indigenous people; forced labor and European diseases swept through the Chumash villages, killing thousands. By 1786, the building of the Santa Barbara Mission had been completed. The Spanish divided millions of acres here into ranchos, where cattle were raised to supply the entire world with tallow and hides.
In this era, large schooner ships replaced crude, smaller ships, such as the galleons. Suddenly, the doors of the world were flung open. Every coastline of the world was now open to exploration - and exploitation.
New beauty and wonders were encountered at every turn. Europeans wanted orchids, tigers, birds of paradise - dragon fruit, wildebeast, flamingos - leopards, elephants, coconuts - and they began to meet the people - of every shade - whose unique societies flourished all around them....
The powerful and dominant cultures of the world - European and Far Eastern - became enamored of the wild beauty that flourished in rampant elegance, all around the globe. Soon, potentates, royalty, and the wealthy wished to own the gems and fruits and flowers from afar, to be adorned with exotic animal skins, beautiful feathers, and luxurious fur pelts.
Along the coastline of California, the "fur trade" became especially lucrative. Ships from a variety of countries were plying the coastline for seal, beaver, and sea otter.
In 1811, Captain Whittemore, a fur trader, was in command of a ship owned by Boardman and Pope of Boston. Whittemore sailed around the Cape toward the West Coast, and arrived at the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. He, too, was searching for sea otters. He had about 30 Kodiak Indians from Sitka, Alaska, among his crew. Whittemore deposited the Kodiaks on San Nicolas Island so they could hunt otter while he sailed on to South America.
The Kodiaks were fully armed with weapons and confrontational attitudes. They were left on the Island, in part, to establish inroads for the Russian fur traders who often stopped along the coastline in their search for seal and otter. It was not long before a bitter dispute arose between the Kodiaks and the Chumash, ending with the shooting death of most of the Chumash men. When Captain Whittemore returned to claim his otter skins and his Kodiak crew, some of the Kodiaks kidnapped Chumash women for themselves, and took them back to the Pacific Northwest.
A very small population of Chumash survived, and they remained on the Island as its only inhabitants. Fur traders continued to frequent the islands, as well. The world's wealthiest, luxury-loving consumers were voracious in their demands for the soft, dense otter pelts.
Sea otter pelts continued to bring incredible prices on the world market, and fur traders continued to make their way to California.
Lutra (Enhydra) Marina - These interesting animals are gregarious, and frequently may be seen in bands numbering from fifty up to hundreds. When in rapid movement, they make alternate undulating leaps out of the water, plunging again, as do seals and porpoises. When in a state of quietude, they are much of the time on their backs.
They are frequently seen in this posture, with the hind nippers extended, as if catching the breeze to sail or drift before it. They live on clams as well as crabs and other species of Crustacea, sometimes small fish. When the otter descends and brings up any article of food, it instantly resumes its habitual attitude on the back, to devour it.
In sunny days, when looking, it sometimes shades its eyes with one forepaw, much in the same manner as a person does with the hand. The females usually have but a single young one at a birth, never more than two, which are brought forth on the kelp, say the white hunters, which abounds at nearly all points, known as their favorite resorting places.
The mothers caress and suckle their offspring, seemingly with much affection, fondling them with their forepaws, reclining in their usual manner, and frequently uttering a plaintive strain which may have given rise to the saying that sea otters sing to quiet their young ones.
But when startled, they rise perpendicularly, nearly half their lengths out of the water, and if their quick sharp eyes discover aught to cause alarm - the cubs are seized with the mouth and instantly all will disappear under water.
~ The American Naturalist, Essex Institute, 1870
Among the fur traders was Captain George Nidever, a sea captain and adventurer who was born in Tennessee. He first arrived in Santa Barbara in 1834. He hunted otter and learned Spanish. He fell in love with Maria Sinforosa Sanchez and the beautiful little Spanish town of Santa Barbara. In 1841, he converted to Catholicism the night before he married his beloved Sinforosa at the Santa Barbara Mission.
Captain Nidever is on the scene in Santa Barbara; he is a hard-working family man with a beautiful home. He is hunting otter. It is here that our tale begins in earnest....
In 1880, Dr. Absalom Stuart, a physician in Santa Barbara, wrote an article about the historic events that unfolded in the lives of Captain Nidever and a mysterious, effervescent little woman who lived on San Nicolas Island. The article, printed in "The Sanitarian" magazine, is entitled A Female Crusoe:
Mr Nidever said in substance: "My occupation has been that of otter hunting. When I came here in 1835, I found two other Americans, Isaac J Sparks and Lewis T Burton, engaged in the same business .
"They chartered a schooner of twenty tons, burden-built at Monterey, called Peor es Nada (Better than Nothing), for a trip to the coast of Lower California on another expedition, leaving Santa Barbara about the first of May 1835. I did not accompany them.
"Not being as successful as those in charge expected, three months later the Peor es Nada put into San Pedro, the port or landing of Los Angeles, on her return trip. From San Pedro, she went to the Island of San Nicolas, about seventy miles southwest from San Pedro, and a little further southeast from Santa Barbara, for the purpose of removing the Indians then on the island to the mainland and returned with eighteen men women and children, as told me by Isaac J Sparks.
"How long the Indians had been residents of the island, how they got there, and by whose authority they were removed, I know not. One of the Indians, rather dwarfed in intellect but possessing physical strength equal to three or four ordinary men, remained at San Pedro; two of the women were taken as concubines by two Americans living in Los Angeles County; the balance of the party divided, part going to Los Angeles and part to San Gabriel Mission.
"Those two men who selected their concubines from the party took an active part in having the Indians removed from the island. According to the information I have obtained from those consulted, the history of the Indian woman is as follows:
"She was absent gathering wood when the others were taken away, but returned to the camp, or quarters, and finding them deserted, followed in time to be taken aboard the schooner, but not finding her children there - one a babe at the breast and the other about three years old, she plunged into the water and swam ashore in search of them.
"Unable to find her children, she returned to the beach just in time to see the schooner leaving. She called to those on board, but the only reply she got and which she remembered to the day of her death, was, "Mañana"... the Spanish word for tomorrow, evidently meaning that the schooner would return for her tomorrow or the following day.
"She threw herself down on the beach and cried, long and bitterly. She did not find her children and supposed they were either taken off with the others, or carried away and devoured by the wild dogs on the island. She became very sick and lay a long time.
"She could not compute time without either water or food, but finally recovered and forgot her grief in wandering about the island. She lived on a plant resembling the cabbage called by Californians palosanto, and a root known by the name of corcomite, also a yellow root (the name of which was not given), and seal, or sea lion blubber. As she had abalone shell fish hooks and lines made of the sinews of the seal, it is probable she supplied herself with fish from the ocean."
A storm arose, and prevented the Peor es Nada from returning to San Nicolas Island. Not long afterward, the ship was wrecked near San Francisco. The woman remained alone on the Island.
In 1851, our Captain Nidever sailed to the Island, hunting otter. He and his crew saw signs of recent human habitation, and wondered if it could be the Lone Woman of legend. However, after a search, they did not locate anyone. Again, in 1852, The Captain returned to San Nicolas for more otter. At the behest of the Mission fathers, he and his crew diligently searched for the woman left behind more than a decade before. Again, they found evidence of recent human activity, but they did not find the Lone Woman.
A third voyage by Mr N and six others, four of whom were Indians from Santa Barbara Mission, was made to the island in July, 1853, and although otter hunting was the main object of the visit, the Indian woman was not forgotten.
One of the party, Mr Deitman, discovered the object of their search at a distance. She was in one of her pens, or windbreaks, clothed in a garment made of the skins of the shag [cormorant] without sleeves, low necked, and as observed when standing, extending almost to the ankles. She was sitting cross-legged, skinning seal blubber with a rude knife.
Upon seeing the strangers, it was reported that she did not hide or run away, but greeted the visitors warmly. In fact, she began to prepare a meal from her meager supplies. She was gracious and welcoming, although no one could understand her dialect, not even the other Chumash who had come with the party from the mainland. Through sign-language and gesturing, the Captain and his crew made it clear that they wanted her to join them, to leave the island on their ship. She gathered a few belongings, and boarded the ship. She accompanied the crew as they continued their route to the other islands in search of sea otter. Finally, they made their way back to Santa Barbara.
As the ship was about to land, our Lone Woman saw a wagon and ox team.
This vision delighted her, so much that,
she talked, laughed, danced, and gesticulated, and before that excitement ended, a man on horseback approached , which gave her even more pleasure than the ox team.
At first, it was supposed that she thought the man and horse constituted one animal, but if so, the mistake was soon corrected, for on landing she went up to the horse and carefully examined it. The examination gave her additional pleasure. She would turn to her late companions and laughingly request them to look at the beast.
She was taken to the house of Mr Nidever, where she became the centre of attraction. The Mission Fathers took a great interest in her, sending to Los Angeles and other places hoping to find some one who understood her dialect, but all failed, even the Pepimaros Indians who were said to have had an acquaintance with the Indians of the Islands.
Her manners were not rude, and in many things, she was more refined than many who enjoy civilized privileges, yet in many things, she was very much like a child. She wanted everything which she saw that appeared pleasant to the eye, or seemed good to the taste, and if fruit was withheld from her, she would plead for it in such a childlike manner that it was hard to refuse her.
When found, she was in excellent physical condition, strong and active, but the eating of fruit and vegetables brought on a diarrhea, or dysentery, in about three weeks after she landed, and that - in connection with an injury to the spine received by falling from a porch - terminated her life four weeks later, or seven weeks from the time she landed....
The Captain's wife, Sinforosa Nidever, had tried her best to make the Woman comfortable in her new home. When Sinforosa saw that the Western diet did not agree with the Woman, she attempted to help her return to her natural diet - roots,fish, seal, natural plants. But the Lone Woman would not do without her newly-discovered fruits, and vegetables, eggs, and beef. Mrs. Nidever was said to treat the Woman as a sister, and they developed an affective and affectionate communication between them. She greatly mourned the loss of her new friend, the Lone Woman.
On her deathbed, the woman was baptised by the Catholic priests, who gave her the name, Juana Maria....
The death of the little Lone Woman is symbolic of a grevious loss - worldwide - that is almost too much to contemplate, or to bear. Entire cultures - and herds and flocks and forests - are gone forever.
Life, and human history, have marched on.
The Lone Woman was the inspiration for a beloved California tale, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and is part of the elementary school curriculum in California. Scott O'Dell, a native Californian, was passionate about chronicling the changes that history wrought on this coastline - and the changes imposed on our first, true, native Californians.
Captain Nidever and his family grew to be some of Santa Barbara's most well-respected citizens. In addition to the chapter in his life that bisected with the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, Captain Nidever was an intrepid sea captain, a world traveler, an avid and successful hunter....and always, an adventurer.
He traversed the continent while hunting for otters and grizzly bears. He crossed the Rocky Mountains to enter California. He enlisted in the California Regiment of Mounted Volunteers during the war with Mexico. He was with John C Fremont when California was claimed for the United States. Nidever purchased San Miguel Island, built a ranch, and raised livestock there for years.
He was a father to six children.
The Captain was immortalized in many stories. It seems that tests of courage and dramatic events were his destiny. He was even praised in this poetic ballad by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's poem, entitled, Courage, was widely printed in children's magazines and elementary school books at end of the 19th century.
Men have done brave deeds,
And bards have sung them well:
I of good George Nidiver
Now the tale will tell.
In Californian mountains
A hunter bold was he:
Keen his eye and sure his aim
As any you should see.
A little Indian boy
Followed him everywhere,
Eager to share the hunter's joy,
The hunter's meal to share.
And when the bird or deer
Fell by the hunter's skill,
The boy was always near
To help with right good will.
One day as through the cleft
Between two mountains steep,
Shut in both right and left,
Their questing way they keep,
They see two grizzly bears
With hunger fierce and fell
Rush at them unawares
Right down the narrow dell.
The boy turned round with screams,
And ran with terror wild;
One of the pair of savage beasts
Pursued the shrieking child.
The hunter raised his gun, -
He knew one charge was all, -
And through the boy's pursuing foe
He sent his only ball.
The other on George Nidiver
Came on with dreadful pace:
The hunter stood unarmed,
And met him face to face.
I say unarmed he stood.
Against those frightful paws
The rifle butt, or club of wood,
Could stand no more than straws.
George Nidiver stood still
And looked him in the face;
The wild beast stopped amazed,
Then came with slackening pace.
Still firm the hunter stood,
Although his heart beat high;
Again the creature stopped,
And gazed with wondering eye.
The hunter met his gaze,
Nor yet an inch gave way;
The bear turned slowly round,
And slowly moved away.
What thoughts were in his mind
It would be hard to spell:
What thoughts were in George Nidiver
I rather guess than tell.
But sure that rifle's aim,
Swift choice of generous part,
Showed in its passing gleam
The depths of a brave heart.